Maryland Crab Houses: Where Good Eating is a Shell Game

Kasper is a columnist for the Baltimore Sun.

To visit Maryland in warm weather is to eat crabs. If you've done one without the other, you've missed out.

The All-American crab, one of a handful of indigenous foods that has made our country great, shows up on restaurant menus year-round. But the serious eating season begins in the spring when the blue crabs start stirring in the Chesapeake Bay and kitchens throughout the state fill with the peppery perfume of steamed crabs.

It's this time of year, particularly, that Baltimore's points of interest are not just the Babe Ruth house, where the Sultan of Swat grew up, or the Flag House, where 19th-Century ladies gathered to stitch Old Glory together. Added to the list are the crab houses where the state's most succulent citizen, the blue crab, reigns.

The blue crab can be found in other parts of the United States. Virginia, North Carolina, Louisiana and Texas are all familiar with the critter. But nowhere else on earth is the blue crab treated with such adulation as in Maryland.

Images of crabs show up on neckties. No parade in Baltimore is official unless an inflated crab balloon floats over. There is a public television comedy show called "Crabs," after you know what. And in July, state politicians gather under a sweltering sun to crack crabs and hammer out deals at the J. Millard Tawes (a former Maryland governor whose wife created a notable crab Imperial recipe) crab feast in the town of Crisfield on the Eastern Shore, the area of the state east of Chesapeake Bay.

Admittedly, it is possible to enjoy Maryland crabs outside the state. Chesapeake Bay soft crabs, caught when they have shed their shells, are jetted to restaurants in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. (Marylanders tend to regard such shipments as a form of culinary aid to the deprived.)

Maryland crabs are also air-freighted to London and Tokyo. But while this generates some pride in the local crustacean, it doesn't do much for the national balance of payments. The main soft-crab shipper--the John T. Handy Co. of Crisfield--is owned by a Japanese company.

The basic ways to enjoy crab are in soups, in crab cakes, in the shell as steamed crab and as soft crab--whole crab that has shed its shell.

Shy eaters are wise to start with the soup, work up to crab cake and graduate to "hard" crab, a whole crab covered with peppery spices and steamed in its shell. Eating hard shells necessitates removing the meat from the shell, a ritual that requires expertise, enthusiasm and lots of beer.

Finally, but only for the brave, there is the soft crab. The crab is cooked whole and either served simply as a sandwich with a thick slice of ripe tomato, or more elaborately in a whole-grain mustard sauce. Either way, it is among the best eats on the planet. The squeamish may not take to sampling a sandwich with legs dangling over the edge, but those who dare to close their eyes and eat will be in heaven.

The best place to enjoy crabs is not far from where they swim: a crab house, where the tables are covered with brown paper and patrons are up to their elbows in crab shells and pepper.

When I direct visitors on a crab-eating swing through the state, I usually point them to crab houses in Baltimore, then suggest a visit to the Eastern Shore. If forced to, I'll even come up with a few places in Washington. There aren't many serious crab eaters in the nation's capital--starched white shirts and silk blouses don't take kindly to the hands-on style of real crab eating.

Some favorite places:

--Gunning's. The crab soup here in South Baltimore comes in two colors: red and white. Red is the vegetable-based soup and white is cream. To some Marylanders, the difference is a matter of class. Like a good politician, I like them both.

Gunning's, which looks like a tavern that grew, is a family-owned operation popular with a variety of folks, including those who work or once worked in Baltimore's steelyard and waterfront factories. You enter through the bar and then are seated in a variety of simple dining rooms.

Esquire magazine called Gunning's crab cake the best in America, a citation that does not exactly overwhelm some of the locals who are suspicious of anything with esquire in the title.

Nonetheless, it is a good crab cake, and Gunning's also puts out a top soft-shell crab sandwich. But the real stars of their menu are the hard crabs. Gunning's steams its crabs the old-fashioned way. The shells of the crabs are coated by hand with layers of spices--lots of pepper and salt--then cooked over pots of boiling liquid. Part of the liquid is stale beer.

I'm not sure I can pinpoint the effect that cooking the crabs over stale beer has on Gunning's hard shells, but they are good crabs.

Hard crabs are priced by the dozen, according to their size and the market demand. When a waitress says, "Hard crabs are running 15, 28 and 40," that means a dozen cost $15 for small crabs, $28 for medium and $40 for large. I usually buy the large figuring that I would rather remove the shell of one large crab than two small.

--Obrycki's is another venerable, if slightly fancier, crab house in East Baltimore.

In the winter, when other crab houses have to rely on Southern states for crabs, Obrycki's is closed.

It reopens every April, often about the same time the Orioles begin their baseball season. The annual reopening is cause for local celebration. Lawyers, accountants, businesswomen become simply crab eaters and line up to be seated on a first-come, first-served basis.

Obrycki's is admittedly noisy, but you don't go to crab houses for intimate conversation.

Obrycki's has both red and white soups, fine steamed crabs and soft crabs. Of their crab cakes, I prefer their deviled cake, a peppier version of a Maryland classic.

--Angelina's Restaurant on Harford Road probably has the largest crab cake in town. It is about the size of softball, with enough crab meat to feed a family of four.

--The Milton Inn. When the Chesapeake Bay watermen start netting the first soft crabs of the season--which, according to them, is usually after the first full moon in May--I arrive, fork at the ready, in Sparks, a northern Baltimore suburb.

The Milton Inn is one of the area's fancier restaurants. I figure on spending about $40 a head, about twice what I figure for crab houses. The Milton Inn is an old country house that once served as a stagecoach stop and a boarding school. One of its students was John Wilkes Boothe. Since then, the place has been fixed up and the quality of its clientele has improved.

The setting is picturesque. This is horse country. When people here want to know if you ride , they aren't talking about bicycles. Chef Mark Henry sautes the soft crab and serves it in whole-grain mustard sauce. It is spectacular.

Whenever I cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge heading for the Eastern Shore, I feel like a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders. Behind me are urban responsibilities. Ahead of me are blue waters, sweet breezes and big crabs.

The largest crabs come from the Wye River, which feeds into the Chesapeake Bay. No one knows why.

--The Crab Claw restaurant. Some of the big fellas find their way to the Crab Claw restaurant in St. Michaels, Md. But If I have the time, I like to drive past St. Michaels and into the tiny town of Tilghman.

In Tilghman, there are still some men who make their living catching crab, fish and oysters. Tilghman is also home to several skipjacks--the graceful wooden sailboats that in the fall and winter are used to harvest oysters off the bottom, and in the summer take tourists on overnight trips.

--The Chesapeake is an old rambling inn and restaurant that has oyster shells paving the driveway and cats lurking outside the kitchen. Both the shells and the cats I regard as proof of real seafood restaurants.

It also has a wooden swing hanging on a rope from a big tree, the sign of a small town. The Harrison family owns The Chesapeake, along with a local wholesale seafood plant and charter boat operation that takes sport fishermen out on the bay.

Soft crab and crab soup, both white and red, are available throughout the summer. But hard steamed crabs are served only on the weekends and only outdoors. If on a weeknight you want hard crabs, you could meander down the road to The Bridge restaurant. It is located next to the bridge, the only one in town.

Finally, if I were stuck in Washington and hungry for crab, I would probably trek out to Crisfield on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring, Md., for a soft crab. Crisfield doesn't serve steamed crabs, and the prices are higher than similar low-brow joints in Baltimore. But Washington is a town of compromises.

Or if, after a day of testifying on Capitol Hill that blue crab should replace apple pie as the national edible, I was too tired to travel to the suburbs, I might grab a cab and ride a few blocks to the Phillips Flagship restaurant down on the Washington waterfront. It is one of the restaurants that hug the Potomac River off Maine Avenue, behind L'Enfant Plaza.

The only time Phillips serves steamed crabs is during the summer, and the after-work crowd there seems more interested in eyeing their fellow customers than studying the menu. But when you've got a pile of steamed crabs in front of you, the world seems good, even in Washington.

GUIDEBOOK

Maryland's Cab Houses

Recommended:

Gunning's Crab House, 3901 S. Hanover St., Baltimore, telephone (301) 354-0085. Obrycki's Crab House, 1727 E. Pratt St., Baltimore, (301) 732-6399. Angelina's Restaurant, 7135 Harford, Road, Baltimore, (301) 444-5547. The Milton Inn, 14833 York Road, Sparks, Md., (301) 771-4366. The Crab Claw, Navy Point, St. Michaels, Md., (301) 745-2900. Chesapeake House Restaurant, Route 33, Tilghman, Md., (301) 886-2121. The Bridge Restaurant, Knapps Narrows Drawbridge, Tilghman, Md., (301) 886-2500. Crisfield, 8606 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, Md., (301) 589-1306. Phillips Flagship Restaurant, 900 Water St., SW, Washington, D.C., (202) 488-8515.

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